A league of their own is a hit with Jewish youth baseball players

April 12, 2017
The juniors division for 13- to 15-year-olds is the most senior in the Blue Star League. Photo by Leslee Komaiko

It’s a beautiful spring afternoon. And as on baseball diamonds across the country at this time of year, kids in North Hollywood are playing ball. But this isn’t Little League or Pony Baseball, the organizations that dominate the youth sport. This is the Blue Star League, a local baseball league that runs from January to June for Jewish kids ages 4 to 15.

At a glance, this could be youth baseball anywhere in America. There are kids in sharp uniforms, fielding and hitting on manicured fields. There are coaches shouting to their players and parents cheering the players on. There are hot dogs and french fries. In the words of Katherine Saltzberg, a Valley Village-based parenting coach whose son Eli, 11, has been playing in the Blue Star League for about a half-dozen years, “Baseball is baseball is baseball.”

But look a little closer and some things may not appear so universal. Some of the boys wear kippot under their caps and batting helmets, and tzitzit under their jerseys. The names on the backs of jerseys read like a Jewish phone book: Feldman, Hirsch, Lipsker, Ben-Gal, Lipman, Boboroff, Weiss. At a certain time in the late afternoon, men gather for afternoon prayer a few feet from the makeshift snack stand where volunteers grill kosher franks and burgers. And when was the last time you sat in the stands with a rabbi playing acoustic guitar?

Unlike Little League, which usually has Saturday games during the spring, Blue Star schedules games on Sunday afternoons to avoid conflict with the Sabbath or Sunday school. If it weren’t for Blue Star, many of these kids would not play at all.

The league got its start in North Hollywood nearly 30 years ago. According to its current commissioner, Valley Village resident Hershel Goulson, 45, who works for the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles foundation, it began as Emek Baseball League, started by parents of students at nearby Emek Hebrew Academy. It still has a loose relationship with the Orthodox private school, and many Emek students participate in Blue Star.

But nearly half of the 240 kids currently playing come from places outside the San Fernando Valley, including a large group from the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood. Some families come from as far north as Oxnard, as far south as Redondo Beach and as far east as Riverside.

“As far as I know, it’s the largest Jewish kids baseball league west of the Mississippi,” Goulson said.

Goulson got involved in the league as a coach in 2005, when his oldest son, now 16, was 4 and became eligible to play. And even though none of his five children, all boys,
is playing this season, Goulson stayed on
for his fifth year as the volunteer commissioner.

“I love kids and I love sports. And nothing brings me greater joy than to see kids having a great time playing sports that they love,” Goulson said. “Obviously, it started with my kids. That was a natural starter for me. To me, it’s all about the kids, and when the kids are happy, I am thrilled. That’s the only payment I need.”

Goulson played baseball growing up in Detroit. “Back then, in the ’70s, they did not have Jewish leagues,” he said. “We played in a non-Jewish league. So, many Jewish kids did not play on Saturdays. I think these kids are so lucky to have this league.”

For Daniel Harrison, 12, an Emek sixth-grader and die-hard Dodgers fan who has been playing Blue Star baseball for the past seven years, the Sunday game is one of the highlights of his week.

“This year, we aren’t such a good team,” said Daniel, who plays for the Reds. That doesn’t seem to have dampened his enthusiasm, however. He said he still is out there having fun and getting exercise. His goal for the season is to learn to stay more calm on the mound and increase his pitching speed and accuracy. “Sometimes when you get nervous, the ball goes off course,” he said.

Eli Saltzberg, an Emek fifth-grader and Daniel’s teammate, is equally gung-ho. According to his mom, Katherine, he wants to put on his uniform first thing in the morning on game days, arrive two hours early and stay after his own game to watch other games.

“The players have a great time,” she said, adding that she appreciates “the Torah atmosphere” of the games. The league requests, for example, that parents and family members dress modestly. “It’s good middos,” she said.

A few years ago, when Beverly Hills Little League switched its Saturday games to Sundays, Blue Star lost a large contingent of kids who attend Gindi Maimonides Academy. But the league’s numbers have held steady ever since, around 250, and the league always has more interest than roster openings.

Goulson said he hoped that someday lights would be installed on the East Valley fields where the teams play. That would allow the league to schedule additional games, with more teams and more players. But for now, the league is limited by the number of games it can squeeze in on the four fields between about 2 and 6 p.m.

So, could a future Clayton Kerhsaw — or rather, Sandy Koufax — be playing in Blue Star? Odds are against it. Nearly all of the kids who play Blue Star baseball are Orthodox. And as Goulson pointed out, you can’t be Orthodox and be a Major League player because you can’t play on Saturdays. But, he added, some players have gone on to play baseball in college, including at Yeshiva University. Ultimately, though, that’s not Blue Star’s purpose.

“This league is about providing a fun Jewish environment for kids,” Goulson said.

For that reason, he reminds managers at the beginning of every season not to sweat the small stuff. “I always share the old Jewish joke: Unless we are impeding your child’s chance to become a doctor, lawyer or CPA, it’s not worth getting upset about.”

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